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By pmallory - Posted on 20 June 2012

5 June 2011

This will be my last newsletter for a while. It is time for the final push to finish reviewing the manuscript of my upcoming book before sending it to the printer. To those of you who have already purchased your copy of the limited collector edition or the standard edition, it will be shipped in early October. We are planning a party in Los Angeles as well as book-signings for the standard edition at the 2011 Head of the Charles and a week later at the River & Rowing Museum in Henley, so I have my work cut out for me.
To send you off into the summer with some food for thought, I present below an excerpt of a truly lovely piece written by my good friend and fellow historian, Tom Weil, on the occasion of this year's Harvard-Yale race:

Rowing is the oldest team activity with a hallowed place in the history of sport, and one of its least understood. In 1876, it was the only college sport that had a place at our national Centennial celebration in Philadelphia. In those days, rowing drew more spectators to its contests than any other team sport in the country. Ironically, the roots and story of its rise as the first modern sport are closely tied to the story of its significant decline in relative popularity beginning in the late nineteenth century, and its virtual eclipse by the team game sports of today. What is it that makes rowing so compelling to those who are so passionately dedicated to it, and so uninteresting to the bread-and-circuses majority? I believe that the answer lies in the essence of what rowing is. From its roots millennia ago in the human record, rowing has not been a game; it has been, from its origins, and is, at its core, simply, very hard work.

Though overshadowed today by the game sports, rowing is very much alive, and playing its unique role in developing the characters of those who take up the oar. Rowing’s singular history and gifts give us reason to value and support it to a much greater extent than is currently appreciated. And it is uniquely related to a core human value. Let’s take a quick poll. Do you work for a living, or do you play games for a living – not in the metaphorical sense, which we all do sometimes, but do you actually play games for a living?

Well, it will not surprise those of you who work that you have much more in common with rowers than you do with baseball, football, hockey, soccer or basketball players. Why? Because those sports, and every other team sport is, in its origins and appearance, a game, and rowing is, in its essence, unremitting hard physical labor.

You need go no further than the origins of the various team sports to see the basic truth in this insight. Each of the games that we’ve mentioned originated in children’s activities that were taken up by adults for exercise, for fun, for the entertainment of others, and, eventually, exploited for profit. They came to showcase an individual’s athletic skills, and the more skilled the individual athlete at throwing, hitting, catching, passing, running, dribbling, kicking, skating or shooting, the more fame, and, ultimately, fortune, he could demand. That these game sports could be cribb’d, cabin’d and confined in arenas to which spectators could gain entrance only by paying a fee gave rise to an increasingly commercial pyramid of sporting empires, ranging from the sales of games equipment and fan memorabilia to the ownership of teams and the revenues generated by ticket sales and broadcasting games.

Why are game sports so popular? Because games are entertaining, to participants and spectators alike. It is a perfectly natural objective to want to be entertained. There is nothing wrong with watching great athletes perform extraordinary individual feats, with cheering for a favorite team, or with taking a turn at bat in a picnic pick-up game. All provide welcome breaks from the hard slog of real life. But, for that very reason, while the game player may learn many valuable lessons from his sport, no team sport is as fitted to preparing us for the daily grind as rowing.

Indeed, if anything, the game sports would remove us from reality. I find it telling, and modestly troubling, that acts that would not be tolerated in real life are encouraged and applauded in game sports. Stealing? We praise game athletes for stealing balls and bases. Faking? We laud those who can “fake out” the opposition. We rhapsodize over throwing “curveballs” and “change-ups.” One of our favorite scoring plays is the “quarterback sneak.” But, in the lives to which we then return, none of us want to be thrown a curveball, or to be the victims of stealing, fakes or sneaking. Why do we accept this behavior on the playing field? Because . . . it’s only a game.

I am not here to criticize the game sports. They have many more participants and fans than rowing, but that is because of the fundamental difference between games and rowing. Entertainment always trumps work when you’re looking for fun, and the game sports, above all, are entertaining to play and fun to watch. They’re meant to be like that. There is nothing in rowing to compare to a goal scored with a bicycle kick, a no-hitter, a hat trick, a 3-pointer from mid-court or a dazzling catch in the end zone. The best game players have unparalleled skills and coordination. Many are in excellent physical shape, and some even play hard enough to be exhausted by the end of the game.

But if you are looking for a team sport that values and requires above all else some of the most difficult qualities to teach or instill in a person, and some of the best personal qualities to carry into one’s life – the capacity for unrelenting, exhausting work in concert with others, and the disciplines and virtues that attach to that, including dedication, sacrifice, courage and selflessness - nothing does this better than rowing. Period. No argument. Because, in its essence, rowing is, more than any other team sport, based predominantly upon the disciplines and values of hard labor, and not upon the eye-catching moves or intricate plays of games.

Rowing is not, and has never been, a game. Rowing was not designed to be entertaining. Rowing was brutally hard life-and-death labor before it was ever a sport. Rowing has been an integral part of human activity since before recorded history. It expanded and defended empires in the Mediterranean and the North Sea for over a millennium, and it provided the critical power for naval mobility as late as the early nineteenth century in some venues. Wherever winds, tides and currents conspired to defeat the use of the sail, whether across lakes, harbors, bays or oceans, until the advent of the steam engine and the internal combustion engine, rowing provided the prime manner of transport for people and goods in the pre-Industrial Age.

Rowing was the tool of the waterman who ferried passengers across rivers without a handy bridge, the lighterman who off-loaded cargo ships at anchor that could not manoeuvre into the docks and wharves of their destinations, and the pilot craft that raced to meet incoming vessels. Whether fishermen with nets, or hunters with harpoons, rowing was the means of livelihood for those who harvested the seas. From the story of Jesus on the Sea of Galilee to Moby Dick, the hard life of the oarsman has been a staple of western culture and literature. And well into the twentieth century, for those in peril on the sea, no sight could be as welcome as an oared lifeboat butting through breaking waves to rescue a shipwrecked crew.

Rowing, uniquely, was a brutal and raw form of work taken from adults doing it for a living, and adopted and adapted by youth. While utilized at times for their own sport, exercise, recreation and amusement over the last two centuries, rowing today is again engaged in by and large primarily for competitive purposes. While it holds an honored place in the arena of sport (Baron de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, considered rowing and rugby to be the two great tests of team athleticism), rowing has never been, and in its essence is not now, a game.

Rowing, the legacy of working men, demands the unremitting dedication of body and mind, and heart and soul, in a way required by no other team sport. The seeming ease of the rower is an illusion compounded by the extraordinary grace and efficiency of motion of a good crew. In fact, rowing requires the most intense simultaneous expenditure of effort and endurance in team athletics. Added to the repetitive full pressure use of every major muscle group and the heroic testing of aerobic, lactic and psychological limits, is the need to perform in perfect synchronicity with every teammate on every stroke, to be exquisitely aware of the boat’s pace and timing, to adjust one’s blade and stroke to the vagaries of wind and wave, and to do all this while perched on a moving seat in a craft that may be rocking from side to side.

And during a race there is no relief. Unlike the game sports, in some of which plays last only for seconds, there are no time outs, halves, quarters, periods or innings, and there are no substitutions or water breaks. There may be little encouragement from spectators, and, for better or worse, there is no coaching. Few athletes from other team sports could keep up with the work of a rower. It makes you wonder why anyone would row.

There may be as many reasons as there are rowers. Certainly, there is great appeal in achieving the extraordinary moment when the boat reaches perfect harmony and seems to flow effortlessly. Or in the setting of lake or river, in the morning fog, in the twilight or moving over a soft blanket of late spring snow. Or in the unparalleled sense of team-ness given by rowers moving in perfect unison. These are some of the joys unique to rowing.

And then there are the principal lessons that are taught by rowing, which provide a sense of what gets put into a rower. Other team sports study playbooks, and work individuals out on their particular roles and when they may expect to get into a game, and practice trick plays to take advantage of an opponent’s vulnerabilities. Rowing utilizes few of these practices, and all are secondary to the focus on building a fantastically hard working, courageous, enduring, dedicated, selfless team player, with each individual going through the same workout as any other. You couldn’t prepare better to be a great partner in business or in life. Start, and do your best ceaselessly, without let-up or rest, stretching yourself to your physical and mental limits, knowing that you are relying on every other teammate to do the same on every stroke, as they are relying on you. That’s it.

So how did this fearsomely brutal activity make its transition to the aquatic playground? Rowing became one of the first team sports because rowing was so much a part of everyday life when organized sport began to take hold, that almost all of the elements required to take part in it for leisure activities (and I use the words advisedly), were at hand. Equipment? There were boats and oars, in profusion, on every waterway. Venues? The waterways themselves. Coaches and trainers? Those who did it for a living. Yes, as the sport advanced, each of these elements was refined and specialized, and institutions and rules were developed to fit the needs of the sport, but the fundamentals were always there, ready for the picking.

And one individual can be credited for catalyzing the development of the first modern sport. In 1715, Thomas Doggett, an Irish playwright and actor living in London, offered a traditional watermen’s red coat and a handsome sterling silver arm badge, about the size of a dinner plate, to the winner of a race among six watermen in their first year out of apprenticeship (the original rookie of the year award). Doggett funded the race, which became known as Doggett’s Coat and Badge, for several more years, and then established a trust to carry it on in perpetuity – which, so far, it has, as the oldest organised, recorded and continuous annual sporting event in the world. The race became a sensation, drawing tens of thousands to the banks of the Thames every summer to witness the contest and bet on the outcome. The renown of the winners not only gave them a leg up in competing for passengers, but also led to their being picked for the crew of the King's/Queen's Royal Barge.

What is the legacy of Doggett’s? First, it provided an unprecedented example of annually honoring a working class man for his proficiency at his trade. It established a sporting event that was as public as one could imagine, for the entertainment of an entire city, which, in turn, in an era when such spectacles did not exist, set an example for future occasions. Further, Doggett’s gave to the hitherto fairly anonymous activity of rowing a certain cachet, and a series of champions. Perhaps most important for the history of rowing, it laid a foundation for the creation of other regularly recurring matches and regattas, and provided a cadre of skilled watermen who could be drawn upon to nurture the growth and expansion of the sport as it was taken up by amateurs.

As amateur boat-racing expanded, and, coincidentally, opportunities for watermen contracted with the modernisation of transportation, these working class experts acted as coxswains, coaches, boat-builders, riggers and boatmen for generations of amateur oarsmen. It is a legacy for which we should be most grateful. The Harvard-Yale race is in its own way a relatively early offshoot and long-lived descendant of Doggett’s, that innovative experiment that elevated quietly brutal and undervalued work into a national and then international spectacle and test of strength, skill, endurance and determination.